With mock agressiveness
Half serious, half playful
Trying to be light and easy
Staring at him, agitated
Laughs rather hysterically
Cutting in, as he hesitates
With sharp sarcasm
Rather than a series of statement outlining my recent conduct in any number of meetings, the above statements, are in fact a selection of stage directions from J.B.Priestley’s, ‘An Inspector Calls.’ The stage directions, taken from all 3 acts of the play and ordered sequentially, give the reader/producer/director guidance as to how the actor playing the role of Sheila Birling, Priestley’s symbol of all that the world could be, is to deliver the lines ascribed to her.
Looked at in isolation, the stage directions also provide a useful map of Sheila’s journey from a naïve ‘pretty girl’ to perspicacious young woman: her blithely playful nature becomes quickly tempered with a seriousness that turns to angst, which eventually resolves itself into vehement disgust at her parents’ startling lack of empathy for anyone outside of their privileged elite.
I started off the lesson asking students to consider who the stage directions might ‘belong’ to and explain the reasoning behind their choice. This enabled me to assess their understanding of a range of characters. For example, one student suggested the directions belonged to Mrs Birling and I was able to probe them on their understanding of the play we’d finished reading two lessons before:
“Is Mrs Birling a hysterical woman then? Because the stage directions says ‘laugh hysterically’ “
“Oh…no. But she might do all the other ones.”
“At what point does Mrs B ‘flare up’ then?”
“Well, when she find out that Eric…”
And so on.
After some discussion, and once we’d ascertained that the directions belonged to Sheila, I was then provided with an opportunity to assess students’ understanding of Sheila’s progression through the novel:
Can anyone remember why Sheila might laugh hysterically?
When does she flare up?
Why is she trying to be light and easy and at which point?
Once I’d done this I asked students to draw an arrow alongside the stage directions and ‘map’ Sheila’s emotions at (roughly) each stage. Something like this:
Realising (halfway through the lesson) that finding quotations for each of these emotions would probably produce some cognitive overload, I then asked students to bastardise their work and reduce these emotions to three broader categories. Like so:
Then, I asked students to find a quotation for each of these broader emotions. My instructions were clear:
- Don’t simply find the line that ‘goes with’ the stage directions we looked at originally.
- Find a quotation that works for you. Ask yourself: Is this the very best quotation that sums up Sheila’s contentment/turmoil/anger at the start/middle/end of the play? In less than a year’s time, in that closed book exam, have I done enough now?’
- The quotation must be short enough for you to remember it easily.
Of course, as students were retrieving quotations, I walked round the classroom advising and questioning where necessary.
So, what do I think students got from this lesson?
- A record of Sheila’s changing emotional state and status throughout the play.
- Three quotations that sum up this emotional ‘journey’ from contentment to turmoil to passionate vehemence.
- A greater understanding of the importance of stage directions in theatre.
- An opportunity to consolidate understanding of plot, and character (both primary-Sheila- and secondary- the other lot).